Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Party

United front tactics are an essential tool of the proletarian party

The Third Congress of the CI on the Relationship of the Party and the Masses

First Published:The Workers’ Advocate Vol. 13, No. 5, July 1, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is the third in a series of articles on united front tactics. The profound experience of the Communist (Third) International is a crucial part of any serious study of the united front. It was the CI that put forward the slogan of the united front and popularized united front tactics as one of the basic methods of overcoming the split in the working class movement caused by the soldout, opportunist leaders who went over to the side of the bourgeoisie in World War I (1914-1918).

In World War I, the old Second (Social-Democratic) International went bankrupt. Almost all its main leaders came out to side with the war machines of “their own” bourgeoisie. The majority of social-democratic organizations became nothing but machines to urge the workers to slaughter their class brothers in other lands for the sake of the supremacy and high profits of the local bourgeoisie. After the war, the social-democratic organizations and reformist leaders continued their treachery and worked to stamp out the revolutionary upsurge. As a result, the honest revolutionary and Marxist forces who remained loyal to the working class abandoned the Second International and formed the Third International; they rallied the class conscious workers to build up the Leninist proletarian parties of a new type. The term “social-democrat” became a term of disgrace, and the class conscious workers proudly took up the name “communist.”

The CI was formally founded in 1919, and it grew like wildfire in its first two years of existence. It won to its side the vanguard of the workers. But the corrupt reformist leaders and their social-democratic organizations managed to hold on to their influence over large parts of the working class. Thus’.the working class movement was split between the communist, genuinely proletarian, parties and the social-democratic (reformist or centrist) parties.

In this situation, the CI carefully elaborated and further developed the Marxist-Leninist ideas on the united action of the proletariat. It was the Third Congress of the CI (June 22-July 12, 1921) that first set forward the slogan of “building up a united proletarian front.”

In the last article, we discussed the general role of the Third Congress in the development of the CI and the building up of new communist parties. We showed that it put forward the basic Leninist theses concerning the relationship of the communist party to the masses, thus establishing a firm basis for the more detailed discussions of particular questions of united front tactics in the later congresses of the CI. We grouped the lessons of the Third Congress that are particularly relevant to our present discussion of united front tactics into five general categories.

We shall now proceed to discuss these five general categories in more detail. We shall make special use of “Theses on Tactics” and the resolution entitled “The Organizational Construction of the Communist Parties and the Methods and Scope of Their Activity” (which we shall abbreviate as “Resolution on Party-Building”) endorsed by the Third Congress.


Winning the Majority of the Working Class for Communism

The Third Congress stressed that the communist parties must link themselves with the masses. This was a basic thesis of the first two congresses of the CI as well, but it received a new and more detailed elaboration at the Third Congress. The Third Congress stressed that the sympathy of the majority of the working people is needed for the success of the proletarian revolution. Thus, since the communist parties are parties of the revolution, they must strive to bring the majority of the working class and people into revolutionary positions. The parties must learn to gauge carefully the mood and political stands of the working masses so as to be able to lead them in revolutionary struggle.

This might seem like an elementary point or even a mere platitude. But when it came to using this principle in deciding what to do in various concrete situations, problems came up and some comrades even rejected the whole idea. Confusion had arisen due to a one-sided summation of the treacheries of the social-democratic opportunists. The reformist and centrist chieftains constantly justified their sellout by whining that their hands were tied by the backwardness of the masses. They condemned all militant action by the proletariat as adventurism, premature, untimely, ad nauseum.

The communist militants, on the other hand, were in tune with the burning discontent and anger of the masses against the exploiters. They were used to demonstrating that the masses were far to the left of the soldout social-democratic leaders. They were used to leading the masses into action. They were used to seeing references to the mood of the majority used simply as a stupid lying excuse for inaction and for siding with the bourgeoisie against the masses. The byword of genuine Marxist practical work is: don’t tell us how hopeless the masses are, but learn how to evoke, how to bring to the surface, the revolutionary strivings of the masses.

Hence it was easy, in the heat of passionate struggle and in the rush of events, to go a step too far and to regard with suspicion references to the need to win over the majority of the proletariat. This was done not just by semi-anarchist elements but by some of the best militants of the CI. It was easy to regard as reformist and centrist rot various references to the need for a sober and careful assessment of the situation among the masses as the guide for deciding what type of actions to undertake. But revolutionary sentiment cannot replace the accurate assessments and judgements needed to guide the class struggle of the proletariat. If the communist movement was not to suffer shipwreck, it was necessary for the CI to inculcate the scientific Leninist tactics among the communist parties.

The Heroic “March Action” of the German Proletariat

One of the places where this issue came to a head was over the evaluation of the heroic armed struggle of the German proletariat of March 1921 (“the March action”), which took place just three months prior to the Third Congress. In this battle, hundreds of thousands of proletarians rose in an armed uprising as a response to provocations by the bourgeoisie. Only the German communists stood by the proletariat, while the reformist and centrist parties once again betrayed the masses. Lenin said that “...the March action was a great step forward in spite of the mistakes of its leaders ” (“Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the CI,” Collected Works, Vol. 32, p. 470, at the Third Congress) and stressed the need to take heed of the lessons of this struggle. The rectification of the tactical errors of the United German Communist Party in leading this struggle was one of the major issues of the Third Congress.

To understand the situation facing the German proletariat, let us review the history leading to the March action.

The situation in Germany at that time was pregnant with socialist revolution. At the end of World War I, in 1918, the German proletariat had risen in revolution and, for a time, began to establish Soviets. The German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was chased out of the country.

But the tragedy was that the majority of the proletariat still had faith in the social-democratic collaborators with the bourgeoisie. The working class had not yet gained the political consciousness to throw aside the reformists and centrists. Of course, it should also be remembered that the communist elements had been fiercely persecuted during the war, while the social- democratic class traitors lounged about under the protection of the bourgeoisie and so were organized and ready to throw themselves against the upsurge of the masses.

Thus the social-democratic reformists were able to stop the revolution halfway. They were unable to save the monarchy but they had the proletariat give up the Soviets in favor of an ordinary capitalist republic. They took upon themselves the job of suppressing the revolutionary initiative of the workers and disarming them. In order to have a tool to fight Bolshevism and the threat of a new revolutionary uprising, the social-democratic leaders who now formed the government of Germany helped the bourgeoisie establish new shock troops for the reaction. The social-democratic government tolerated the formation of numerous illegal, ultra-reactionary armed detachments; indeed, the government itself sponsored the “free corps” which was the base for all these groups.

As a result, a turbulent period opened in German history. The social-democrats sought to preserve capitalism and to impose a bourgeois republic on the masses. The right-wing counter-revolutionaries, their positions saved by social-democratic treachery, organized themselves for attempts to install a dictatorship of the extreme reactionaries on the masses. Meanwhile the working class moved gradually to the left, and the German communists gained strength, founded the Communist Party, and proceeded to rally the masses.

This was a period of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary attempts.

The extreme reactionaries, for example, attempted to seize state power in March 1920 in the “Kapp putsch.” This was something rather similar to the Kornilov revolt in Russia of the tsarist generals against the Kerensky government in August 1917. The monarchist landowner Kapp and the reactionary generals encountered no resistance from the social-democratic government, and they proclaimed a military dictatorship. But this putsch collapsed due to a general strike of the workers of Berlin.

The proletariat, for its part, made several attempts to push the revolution further. The most notable was the Spartacus uprising of January 1919. In this entire postwar period the proletariat faced savage repression. The social-democratic government and the reactionaries conspired together to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and to slaughter 20,000 revolutionary workers in the various class battles.

By 1920 it was clear that the workers were again moving to the left. This frightened the bourgeoisie. It decided to provoke the class conscious workers into a premature insurrection in order to have an excuse to massacre the communists before they could gain more strength from the leftward motion of the masses. Thus, in March 1921, the bourgeois government, which had succeeded the social-democratic government, sent troops to suppress the workers of central Germany.

In reply, the United Communist Party of Germany led the workers in struggle. This was the “March action.” The Communist Party proved itself to be the party that shared weal and woe with the workers, while the reformist and centrist leaders supported the bourgeoisie.

But the German Communist Party, while showing its militant and fighting spirit, made serious tactical errors. It misunderstood the nature of the March action. It didn’t understand that this struggle was a defensive struggle forced on the proletariat, and instead it tried to convert it into an offensive struggle for power. As a result, the Party fell victim of the provocation of the bourgeoisie and conducted an armed uprising in a situation where it did not yet have the support of the majority of the proletariat and so was bound to suffer a heavy defeat.

The “Theory of the Offensive”

The March action despite the mistakes was a valiant deed of the proletariat. But a lasting danger, that could have been fatal if left unattended, lay in the fact that the German communists had a hard time judging the lessons of this struggle correctly because of the influence of the semi-anarchist “theory of the offensive.”

This theory had been proclaimed at the Unity Congress of the German CP and the left wing of the Independent Social-Democratic Party in December 1920. It held that the Party should always turn any struggle into an offensive struggle, independent of the political situation, and it negated the need to judge the objective conditions, the mood of the masses, and so forth. It simply regarded all talk of defensive struggles as opportunist. Such a theory threatened to doom the United German Communist Party to repeat the errors of the March action and to hurl itself to its destruction. This theory prevented the German communists from summing up the valuable experience they had gained during the March action and from using this experience to further temper the Party.

The March action illustrated the fallacy of the “theory of the offensive.” It reminds one of Lenin’s warning in his work for the Second Congress of the CI, where he wrote that:

It is just as if 10,000 soldiers were to fling themselves into battle against 50,000 enemy soldiers, when the thing to do would have been to ’stop,’ to ’turn,’ or even to effect a ’compromise ’ to gain time until the arrival of the 100,000 reinforcements which were on their way but which could not go into action immediately.” (“Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Ch. IX)

It was the task of the Third Congress to review and stress this lesson. It centered its attention with regard to the March action on criticizing the “theory of the offensive” and to stressing the necessity for the communist parties to win over the majority of the working class and other toilers in order to stage a successful socialist revolution. Its evaluation of the March action stated:

“The action of last March was forced upon the VKPD (United German Communist Party) by the Government’s attack upon the proletariat of Middle Germany.

“In stoutly defending the workers of Middle Germany, the VKPD has shown itself to be the Party of the revolutionary proletariat of Germany. In this first great struggle, which it had to sustain immediately after its formation, the VKPD committed a number of mistakes, of which the chief one was that it did not clearly understand the defensive nature of the struggle.... This mistake was further amplified by a number of Party theorists who represented the offensive as the principal means of the campaign of the VKPD in the present situation.... The Congress of the Communist International considers the March action of the VKPD as a step forward. The March action was a heroic battle of hundreds of thousands of workers against the bourgeoisie. It is of the opinion, that in order to ensure greater success for its mass actions, the VKPD must in the future better adapt its slogans to the actual situation, giving the most careful study to the situation....” (“Theses on Tactics,” 7. The Lessons of Actions of March) The Third Congress further stated: ”The March events in Germany have shown the great danger, that the front ranks of the working class, the Communist vanguard of the proletariat, may be forced by the enemy into the fight, before the gathering of the great masses of the proletarians has taken place.... [The Communist International] has welcomed the fact that the United Communist Party of Germany placed itself at the head of the working masses that hastened to the defense of their menaced brothers. But at the same time, the Communist International deems it its duty to declare frankly and distinctly to the workers of all countries: When the vanguard is unable to evade the open fight, when such fights cannot force the mobilization of the entire working class, the vanguard must not let itself be drawn into decisive fights alone and isolated, that when forced into isolated fight, the vanguard of the proletarian army must evade the armed clash with the enemy, because the source of the victory of the proletariat over the armed white-guards consists in its reliance upon the masses.” (from “A Call to New Work and New Struggles” from the Executive Committee of the CI issued at the end of the Third Congress)

Similar questions came up in other parties. The Communist Party of France, for example, faced a difficult struggle to transform itself into a truly revolutionary party. It had the task of breaking with “the remnants of national pacifist and parliamentary-reformist ideology.” (“Theses on Tactics,” 3. The Important Task of the Present) But this could not be accomplished by simply mechanically carrying out the most extreme actions independent of the circumstances. The Third Congress pointed out that “The attempts of the impatient and the politically inexperienced to apply extreme methods, which by their very nature are methods of decisive proletarian revolution, to simple questions (e.g.,...the proposal for the forcible prevention of the occupation of Luxembourg, etc.) contain elements of most dangerous adventurism. If applied such tactics would put off for a long time the real revolutionary preparation of the proletariat for the conquest of power. That adventurism, which by its very nature forms no clear conception of the purposes of mass action and the difficulties in the way, merely brings sickly and ofttimes deadly premature travail instead of the revolution.” (Ibid.)

Summing up the general ideological question involved, the Third Congress stated:

The distinction between the Communist International and the Social-Democrats of all colors does not consist in the fact that we are trying to force the revolution and set a definite date for it while they are opposed to any utopian and immature uprisings. No, the distinction lies in the fact that Social-Democrats hinder the actual development of the revolution by rendering all possible assistance in the way of restoring the equilibrium of the bourgeois state while the Communists, on the other hand, are trying to take advantage of all means and methods for the purpose of overthrowing and destroying the capitalist government and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (“Theses on the International Situation and the Problems of the CI,” Section VII, Point 37, emphasis as in the original)

Learning to Link Up With the Still Undeveloped Revolutionary Sentiments of the Masses

The evaluation of the March action and the criticism of the “theory of the offensive” are concrete examples of how the issue of the need to win over the majority of the working class came up in practice. At the Third Congress there were those, such as the Italian delegate Terracini, who actually advocated removing the references in the CI theses to the necessity to win the majority of the working class and even to the word “masses.” In essence, the attitude that came up is that, if the German communists or the Czechoslovak communists already had several hundred thousand workers in their parties, which they did, what need is there to consider how to win over the rest?

The main essence of this part of the work of the Third- Congress, namely the struggle over the need to win the majority of the working class, was to inculcate in the parties the need to be sensitive to the political mood of the masses and find ways and means of linking up with them. The situation that the Third Congress dealt with is that denial of the need to win over the majority of the working class and of the need to carefully gauge the mood of the masses had formed an obstacle blocking effective consideration of a whole series of questions, such as understanding the role of defensive struggle, making proper use of partial demands, utilizing united front tactics, and so forth. Clearly, if one didn’t recognize the need to win over the majority, if one thus didn’t understand in general what the significance of the balance of forces was, this would be an obstacle to the rest of the work of the Third Congress, such as discussing the ways and means of changing the balance of forces in favor of the revolution, and even to making an accurate assessment of what the balance of forces at any time really was.

What does sensitivity to the political mood of the masses mean? The reformist politicians, liquidationist elements and other opportunists say that work among the masses means giving up a militant stand and watering down one’s demands to nothing. They present it as requiring one to inscribe on one’s banner the least common denominator of all the prejudices and backward ideas currently fashionable. In fact, this is not sensitivity to the masses, but just another way in which the opportunists blame their treachery on the alleged backwardness of the masses.

The Third Congress presented the matter of sensitivity to the masses differently. It showed that it was a question of learning to bring forth the revolutionary energy of the masses. The communist vanguard had to learn to link up with the still inconsistent, vacillating and incomplete revolutionary tendencies that exist among the working masses. It had to learn how to use various forms of agitation and organization that appeal to the still confused strivings of the still unawakened masses and help bring these masses forward to the communist stand.

Thus the Third Congress pointed out:

“In those capitalist countries where a large majority of the proletariat has not yet reached revolutionary consciousness, the Communist agitators must be constantly on the lookout for new forms of propaganda, in order to meet these backward workers half way, and thus facilitate their entry into the revolutionary ranks. The communist propaganda, with its watchwords; must bring out the budding, unconscious, incomplete, vacillating and semi-bourgeois revolutionary tendencies which are struggling for supremacy with the bourgeois traditions and conceptions in the minds of the workers.

“At the same time communist propaganda must not rest content with the limited and confused demands or aspirations of the proletarian masses. These demands and expectations contain revolutionary germs and are a means of bringing the proletariat under the influence of communist propaganda.” (“Resolution on Party-Building,” Point 22)

The Concept of the Masses

The communist parties are proletarian parties. The united front tactics were put forth first and foremost to overcome the split in the working class movement and ensure that the proletariat fights as a united class. But, to carry out a revolution, the proletariat must also take the leadership of all the toilers and exploited, of all the “small people,” including the semi-proletarians (such as the poor peasantry) and various strata of the petty bourgeoisie.

At the Third Congress Lenin pointed out that:

...to win, we must have the sympathy of the masses. An absolute majority is not always essential; but what is essential to win and retain power is not only the majority of the working class – I use the term ’working class ’ in its West European sense, i. e., in the sense of the industrial proletariat – but also the majority of the working and exploited rural population.” (“Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the CI”)

Thus the communist parties must be sensitive not just to the political mood of the proletariat, but also that of the rest of the working masses. The Third Congress discussed the particular methods to be used to rally the semi-proletarians and various petty-bourgeois strata around the revolution. It pointed out:

“In order to win the semi-proletarian sections of the workers as sympathizers of the revolutionary proletarians, the Communists must make use of their special antagonisms to the landowners, the capitalists and the capitalist state in order to win these intermediary groups from their mistrust of the proletariat. ...Communists must also endeavor to counteract the pernicious influence of hostile organizations which occupy authoritative positions in the respective districts, or may have influence over the petty bourgeois working peasantry, over those who work in the home-industries and other semi-proletarian classes. Those who are known by the exploited, from their own bitter experience, to be the representatives and embodiment of the entire criminal capitalist system, must be unmasked. All everyday occurrences which bring the State bureaucracy into conflict with the ideals of petty bourgeois democracy and jurisdiction, must be made use of in a judicial and energetic manner in the course of communist agitation.” (“Resolution on Party-Building,” Point 29)

The Third Congress discussed the tasks of the communist parties towards the process of fermentation taking place in the petty bourgeoisie. It stated:

“In Western Europe there is no other important class besides the proletariat, which might become a determining factor in the world revolution.... But even in Western Europe a part of the peasantry, a considerable section of the petty-bourgeoisie in the towns, the numerous so-called ’new middle class,’ the office workers, etc., are sinking into ever worse conditions of life. Under the pressure of the high cost of living, housing difficulties, and the insecurity of their positions, these masses are beginning to pass through a process of fermentation, which draws them out of their political inactivity.... The bankruptcy of imperialism in the defeated countries, the bankruptcy of pacifism and social-reform in the victorious countries, drives some of these middle class elements into the camp of open counter-revolution, and others into the revolutionary camp.... The Communist Parties have to keep alive the fermentation among the petty-bourgeoisie, in order to utilize it in the most appropriate way, even though it does not lose its petty-bourgeois illusions.” (from Point 9, Relation to the Semi-Proletarian Elements, of the “Theses on Tactics,” emphasis as in the original)

Another important point about the concept of the masses, besides the question of the semi-proletarians and the petty bourgeoisie, is that it must be considered in relation with the particular situation facing the revolution at any moment. For example, as the situation ripens towards revolution, more and more of the exploited and downtrodden awaken and take part in struggle. Lenin showed how the concept of the masses changes and expands in the course of the revolution. He stated:

...I wish to say only a few words about the concept of ’masses.’ It is one that changes in accordance with the changes in the nature of the struggle. At the beginning of the struggle it took only a few thousand genuinely revolutionary workers to warrant talk of the masses. If the party succeeds in drawing into the struggle not only its own members, if it also succeeds in arousing non-party people, it is well on the way to winning the masses.... You have a mass when several thousand non-party workers, who usually live a philistine life and drag out a miserable existence, and who have never heard anything about politics, begin to act in a revolutionary way. ... When the revolution has become sufficiently prepared, the concept ’masses’ becomes different: several thousand workers no longer constitute the masses. This word begins to denote something else. The concept of ’masses undergoes a change so that it implies the majority, and not simply a majority of the workers alone, but the majority of all the exploited. Any other kind of interpretation is impermissible for a revolutionary, and any other sense of the word becomes incomprehensible.... I would not altogether deny that a revolution can be started by a very small party and brought to a victorious conclusion. But one must have a knowledge of the methods by which the masses can be won over. For this, thoroughgoing preparation of revolution is essential. But here you have comrades coming forward with the assertion that we should immediately give up the demand for ’big ’ masses. They must be challenged. Without thoroughgoing preparation you will not achieve victory in any country. ” (“Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the CI”)

Against Opportunist Interpretations of “Winning the Majority”

The above statement by Lenin not only stresses the need to win over the majority to ensure the success of the proletarian revolution, but it also cuts in the other direction as well. It shows that in “slow” times, it can happen that the activity of relatively small numbers of workers suffices to prove the mass character of the movement. This cuts against the empty-headed reformists and our present-day demoralized liquidators who try to use the concept of “winning the majority” to disparage the “small numbers” in the present mass actions. Their attitude shows that they are slaves to the bourgeois ideologists, who down to the day of the insurrection repeatedly profess to believe that the masses just love their iron bonds of capitalist slavery and that all the mass outrage is really just the work of a handful of “outside agitators.”

Lenin and the CI fought a ferocious and unrelenting battle against the opportunist interpretations of “winning the majority” by the reformists and centrists. The First Congress of the CI, for example, showed how the social-democrats defended the rule of the bourgeoisie by denouncing the proletarian revolution as a violation of “pure democracy.” Some months later, Lenin, in his “Greetings to Italian, French and German Communists” of October 10,1919, wrote about the necessity to win over the majority of the working people in the following passage, so rich in profound ideas:

Only scoundrels or simpletons can think that the proletariat must first win a majority in elections carried out under the yoke of the bourgeoisie, under the yoke of wage slavery, and must then win power. This is the height of stupidity or hypocrisy: it is substituting elections, under the old system and with the old power, for class struggle and revolution.

The proletariat wages its class struggle and does not wait for elections to begin a strike, although for the complete success of a strike it is necessary to have the sympathy of the majority of the working people (and, it follows, of the majority of the population): the proletariat wages its class struggle and overthrows the bourgeoisie without waiting for any preliminary elections (supervised by the bourgeoisie and carried out under its yoke) and the proletariat is perfectly well aware that for the success of its revolution, for the successful overthrow of the bourgeoisie, it is absolutely necessary to have the sympathy of the majority of the working people (and, it follows, of the majority of the population).

The parliamentary cretins and latter-day Louis Blancs [a French reformist who, among other things, opposed the Paris Commune as a violation of the authority of the “freely elected” reactionary assembly at Versailles – ed.] ’insist’ absolutely on elections, on elections that are most certainly supervised by the bourgeoisie, to ascertain whether they have the sympathy of the majority of the working people. But this is the attitude of pedants, of living corpses, or of cunning tricksters.

Real life and the history of actual revolutions show that quite often the ’sympathy of the majority of the working people ’cannot be demonstrated by any elections (to say nothing of elections supervised by the exploiters, with ’equality ’ of exploiters and exploited!) Quite often the ’sympathy of the majority of the working people ’ is demonstrated not by elections at all, but by the growth of one of the parties; or by its increased representation in the Soviets, or by the success of a strike which for some reason has acquired enormous significance, or by successes won in civil war, etc., etc....

The proletarian revolution is impossible without the sympathy and support of the overwhelming majority of the working people for their vanguard – the proletariat. But this sympathy and this support are not forthcoming immediately and are not decided by elections. They are won in the course of a long, arduous and stem class struggle.... After the conquest of power this struggle continues, but in other forms.” (Collected Works, Vol. 30, pp. 58-60, emphasis as in the original)

This idea is repeated in many places by Lenin. An excellent discussion of the difference between the concept of winning the majority and the illusions and prejudices of petty-bourgeois democracy is given in his article “The Constituent Assembly Election and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” of December 1919. There he points out that:

The traitors, blockheads and pedants of the Second International could never understand such dialectics; the proletariat cannot achieve victory if it does not win the majority of the population to its side. But to limit that winning to polling a majority of votes in an election under the rule of the bourgeoisie, or to make it the condition for it, is crass stupidity, or else sheer deception of the workers. In order to win the majority of the population to its side the proletariat must, in the first place, overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize state secondly, it must introduce Soviet power and completely smash the old state apparatus, whereby it immediately undermines the rule, prestige and influence of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois compromisers over the non-proletarian working people. Thirdly, it must entirely destroy the influence of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeois compromisers over the majority of the non-proletarian masses by satisfying their economic needs in a revolutionary way at the expense of the exploiters. (Collected Works, Vol. 30, pp. 265-66, emphasis as in original)

Lenin further stressed that:

It is no use thinking that the petty-bourgeois or semi-petty-bourgeois masses can decide in advance the extremely complicated political question: ’to be with the working class or with the bourgeoisie.’ The vacillation of the non-proletarian sections of the working people is inevitable; and inevitable also is their own practical experience, which will enable them to compare leadership by the bourgeoisie with leadership by the proletariat.

This is the circumstance that is constantly lost sight of by those who worship ’consistent democracy’ and who imagine that extremely important political problems can be solved by voting. Such problems are actually solved by civil war if they are acute and aggravated by struggle, and the experience of the non-proletarian masses (primarily of the peasants), their experience of comparing the rule of the proletariat with the rule of the bourgeoisie, is of tremendous importance in that war.” (Ibid., p. 267, emphasis as in original)

Among other things, Lenin also deals in this article with the relationship of town and country. He points out that:

The country cannot be equal to the town under the historical conditions of this epoch. The town inevitably leads the country. The country inevitably follows the town. The only question is which class, of the ’urban’ classes, will succeed in leading the country, will cope with this task, and what forms will leadership by the town assume?” (Ibid., p. 257, emphasis as in original)

At the Third Congress of the CI, Lenin returned to the issue of the relationship of the town and country. In his “Report on the Tactics of the Russian Communist Party, July 5, 1921,” he discussed how the proletariat formed an alliance with the peasantry. At the same time, he opposed the Menshevik arguments of “pure democracy,” pointing out that:

The Menshevik argument runs like this: the peasantry constitutes a majority; we are pure democrats, therefore, the majority should decide. But as the peasantry cannot operate on its own, this, in practice, means nothing more nor less than the restoration of capitalism.” (Collected Works, Vol. 32, p. 485)

After the Third Congress of the CI, Lenin again spoke against formalist interpretations of “winning the majority.” In “A Letter to the German Communists” of August 14, 1921, he brought up a practical example from the struggle against the fascists:

To win over the majority of the proletariat to our side – such is the ’principal task’....

’’Of course, we do not give the winning of the majority a formal interpretation, as do the knights of philistine ’democracy’ of the Two-and-a-Half International. When in Rome, in July 1921, the entire proletariat – the reformist proletariat of the trade unions and the Centrists of Serrati’s party –followed the Communists against the fascists, that was winning over the majority of the working class to our side.

This was far, very far, from winning them decisively; it was doing so only partially, only momentarily, only locally. But it was winning over the majority, and that is possible even if, formally, the majority of the proletariat follow bourgeois leaders, or leaders who pursue a bourgeois policy (as do all the leaders of the Second and the Second-and-a-Half Internationals), or if the majority of the proletariat are wavering. This winning over is gaining ground steadily in every way throughout the world. Let us make more thorough and careful preparations for it; let us not allow a single serious opportunity to slip by when the bourgeoisie compels the proletariat to undertake a struggle; let us learn to correctly determine the moment when the masses of the proletariat cannot but rise together with us.” (Collected Works, Vol. 32, p. 522, emphasis as in the original)

An Example From the Present

Lenin’s example of the Rome demonstration brings to mind things that happen today. In the introduction to this series of articles, we pointed to our Party’s use of united front tactics at demonstrations. For example, our Party works hard at the anti-militarist demonstrations, carefully gauges the mood of the masses, links up with their sentiment against the U.S. war drive, and helps move it forward to conscious struggle against imperialism as a system and against the capitalist parties.

These tactics have won the sympathy of the masses. This is seen in the support given to our contingents, in the cases of demonstrators taking up the anti-imperialist slogans put forward by our Party, in the warm reception given to the militant songs of our cultural groups, and so forth. It is seen in the masses joining us in denouncing the reaction, and in the pressure of the rank-and-file activists inside the various groups for militancy. Our successful defiance of the reformists and liquidators is due to support from the masses, and it is an example of winning over the masses. True, it is even further from winning them decisively than the example of the Rome demonstration. But it is a practical example of winning the masses, even if very partially, very momentarily and very locally. This shows that even in the present difficult period it is fully possible, and in fact essential, to apply the Leninist teachings on winning the masses.

The liquidators deny that it is possible in this period to win the masses for revolutionary agitation. Instead they have abandoned agitation against U.S. imperialism and have thrown themselves on the mercy of the Democratic Party in the name of staying with the majority. In this way, they have completely trampled on the Leninist teachings on winning the majority, for these teachings are on winning the masses for communism, for the revolution. He who has lost faith in the revolutionary sentiment of the masses, he who has folded up the banners of class struggle and revolution, has at the same time renounced the true tactics of the united front and of winning the majority.

Our Party, on the other hand, applies the Leninist teachings on winning the masses. We pay close attention to the political mood of the masses and to finding the methods of linking up with the still undeveloped revolutionary sentiments of the masses. Our successes are another verification that the Leninist teachings are fully applicable, not just when the revolution surges forward, but also in the protracted work of preparation in “slow” periods.


The Communist Parties Must Be Parties of Action

The Third Congress stressed that the communist parties must be parties of action. They must not simply try to win the masses with propaganda and general assertions, but they must lead the masses in struggle. This was the only way in which the communists could win over the majority of the working class. Thus the Third Congress stated that:

“The development of the communist parties can only be achieved through a fighting policy. Even the smallest communist units must not rest content with mere propaganda. In all proletarian mass organizations they mast constitute the vanguard, which must teach the backward, vacillating masses how to fight, by formulating practical plans for direct action, and by urging the workers to make a stand for the necessaries of life. Only in this manner will Communists be able to reveal to the masses the treacherous character of all non-communist parties. Only in case they prove able to lead the practical struggle for the proletariat, only in case they can promote these conflicts, will the Communists succeed in winning over great masses of the proletariat to the struggle for the dictatorship [of the proletariat –ed.].

“The entire propaganda and agitation as well as the other work of the Communist parties, must be based on the conception that no lasting betterment of the position of the proletariat is possible under capitalism.... This conception, however, must not find expression in the abandonment of all participation in the proletarian struggle for actual and immediate necessaries of life, until such a time as the proletariat will be able to attain them through its own dictatorship.” (from Point 5 of the“Theses on Tactics,” emphasis as in the original)

The Question of Partial Struggles and Partial Demands

The First and Second Congresses of the CI had also stressed that the communist parties must be parties of struggle, but the Third Congress elaborated this in relation to the celebrated question of partial struggles and partial demands. For the reformists, partial demands are an excuse to paint the capitalist system in glowing colors. But for the communist, the heart of the question of partial demands is linking up with the various currents of revolt among the working masses and leading the struggle on the economic and political questions of the day.

Thus the communist parties must know how to lead not just the crowning point of the struggle, the revolution itself, but also the “partial struggles” that lead to the revolutionary insurrection. Indeed, if a party is not built up in the midst of the class struggle, it will not know how to lead an insurrection either, even if it is handed one on a silver platter. Thus, rather than counterposing the various partial struggles to the revolution itself, the communist parties must learn how to make use of them so that the various revolutionary struggles will, “when united, form the flood of the social revolution.” (Ibid.)

Perhaps the idea might arise that the need to wage partial struggles only applies during a “slow” period, while during periods of revolutionary crisis one can dispense with such things. But this is completely wrong. The Third Congress, in fact, took place during a time when the post-World War I revolutionary wave had not yet exhausted itself. It approached the question of partial demands in the context of a situation where there was a reason to believe that revolutions might break out very soon in various European countries. But during this crisis, as is usually the case in revolutionary crises, the issue of the livelihood and immediate interests of the masses took on an especially acute form. The very sharpness of these issues makes it essential to take advantage of them for rallying and organizing the proletariat and setting it in motion against the exploiters.

The Third Congress vehemently opposed the view that the raising of partial demands was, in itself, social-democracy and reformism. Indeed, it pointed to the fact that the social-democrats and reformists were handmaidens of the bourgeoisie who were helping the bourgeoisie squeeze the masses to the wall. This was why the social-democrats and reformists, on one front after another, were “continually demonstrating that they are unwilling to put up any fight, even for the most modest demands contained in their own programs.” (Ibid.)

Today, too, we can see the trade union bureaucrats and reformists adapt themselves to productivity drives and Reaganomics. They wield the whip against the masses. To fail to see this is to overlook the live issues of the class struggle going on right under one’s nose. Thus the Third Congress held that:

Every objection to the establishment of such partial demands, every accusation of reformism in connection with these partial struggles, is an outcome of the same incapacity to grasp the live issues of revolutionary action which manifested itself in the opposition of some communist groups to participation in trade union activities and parliamentary action. Communists should not rest content with teaching the proletariat its ultimate aims, but should lend impetus to every practical move leading the proletariat into the struggle for these ultimate aims. How inadequate the objections to partial demands are and how divorced they are from the needs of revolutionary life, is best exemplified by the fact that even the small organizations formed by the so-called ’left’ communists for the propagation of pure doctrines have seen the necessity of formulating partial demands, in order to attract larger sections of workers than they have hitherto been able to.” (Ibid., Point 6)

In fact, it is only through vigorously leading the various immediate struggles that the communist party can expose the empty chatter about reform. Thus the Third Congress pointed out that:

“...the Communists must take part in all the elementary struggles and movements of the workers, and must defend the workers’ cause in all conflicts between them and the capitalists over hours and conditions of labor, wages, etc. The communists must also pay great attention to the concrete questions of working class life....

“It is only through the everyday performance of such elementary duties, and through participation in all the struggles of the proletariat.... It is only by adopting such methods that it will be distinguished from the propagandists of the hackneyed, so-called, pure socialist propaganda, consisting of recruiting new members and talking about reforms and the use of all parliamentary possibilities, or rather impossibilities.” (from Point 23 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

Exposing the Reformists and Centrists on Concrete Issues

Thus participation in the mass struggle provides an effective means for the communists to expose the social-democrats in the eyes of the widest masses of the workers. The struggle for the immediate interests of the working masses provides a powerful battering ram that can be used to beat down and break through the illusions and prejudices spread by the reformists.

But if this exposure is to take place, then the criticism of the reformists and centrists had to focus not just on general ideological questions, but also on the concrete issues of the class struggles. The more that the communists could demonstrate, on issue after issue, that the social-democrats and the trade union bureaucrats had joined with the offensive of the bourgeoisie or were facilitating it, the more powerful the struggle against opportunism would be. This required a change in the way that the struggle against social-democracy was often being waged.

Take, for example, the issue of trade union contracts. The reformists and trade union bureaucrats promoted the idea of labor contracts reached by friendly negotiation as the way of replacing class struggle with class collaboration. But it is not sufficient to denounce this general stand. Instead the particular agreements with which they betray the workers must be opposed and contrasted with a real struggle.

Thus the Third Congress pointed out:

“For instance, instead of contenting themselves with resisting theoretically and on principle all trade agreements, they [communists – ed.] should rather take the lead in the struggle over the specific nature of the trade agreements recommended by the Amsterdam [the reformist international trade union federation – ed.] leaders. It is, of course, necessary to condemn and resist any kind of impediment to the revolutionary preparedness of the proletariat, and it is a well-known fact that it is the aim of the capitalists and their Amsterdam myrmidons to tie the hands of the workers by all manner of trade agreements. Therefore, it behooves the Communists to open the eyes of the workers to the nature of these aims. This the Communists can best attain by advocating a trade agreement which would not hamper the workers.” (“Resolution on Party-Building,” Point 25)

One must learn how to formulate the partial demands correctly and how to distinguish between demands which help move the struggle forward and reformist illusions which impede the struggle. Thus, for example, the Third Congress dealt with the nationalization fraud of the social-democrats, which then as now has remained a favorite theme of these class traitors. It showed how the German reformists, at the crucial moment in March, 1919, had used chatter about the “socialization” of Germany under bourgeois rule in order to hold the workers back from revolutionary action. (See Part 1 of “Theses on Tactics”)

The centrists had taken up and embellished this fraud in order to hold the workers back from all live struggle. The Congress stated that:

Not only did the centrists mislead the masses by trying to persuade them that nationalization alone, without the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, would deprive capitalism of the chief industries, but they also endeavored to divert the workers from the real and live struggle for their immediate needs, by raising their hopes of a gradual seizure of industry, to be followed by ’systematic’ economic reconstruction.... The theory prevailing among a portion of the centrists, that the program of the nationalization of the coal or any other industry is based on the Lassallean theory of the concentration of all the energies of the proletariat on a single demand, in order to use it as a lever in revolutionary action, which in its development would lead to a struggle for power, is nothing but empty words. The suffering of the working class in every country is so intense, that it is impossible to direct the struggle against these blows, which are coming thick and fast, into narrow doctrinairian channels. On the contrary, it is essential to make use of all the economic needs of the masses, as issues in the revolutionary struggles which, when united, form the flood of the social revolution.” (“Theses on Tactics,” Point 5, emphasis as in the original)

The Third Congress also denounced the social-democratic attitude to the unemployed. It stated:

“While the capitalists make use of the ever increasing army of the unemployed as a lever against the organized workers for the forcing down of wages, the Social-Democrats, the Independents [centrists –ed.] and official trade union leaders maintain a cowardly aloofness from the unemployed. They consider them mere objects of state trade union charity and despise them politically as Lumpen-Proletariat. The Communists must clearly understand that under the present circumstances the unemployed represent a revolutionary factor of gigantic significance. The communists must take upon themselves the leadership of this army....

“The Communist Parties, in energetically supporting this section of the workers (now low down in the scale of labor) stand up, not for the interests of one section of workers, as opposed to those of other sections, but for the common good of the entire working class betrayed by the counterrevolutionary leaders in the interests of the labor aristocracy. The more workers in the ranks of the unemployed and part-time employed, the quicker their interests become transformed into the common interests of the entire working class. The momentary interests of the labor aristocracy must be subordinated to those common interests. Those who plead the interests of the labor aristocracy, in order to arouse their hostility to the unemployed, or in order to leave the latter to their own devices, are splitting the working class and are acting in a counter-revolutionary manner.” (from Point 6 of the “Theses on Tactics”)

Don’t Separate the Economic and Political Struggles

The Third Congress spoke a great deal about the struggle for the economic needs of the working masses. But it by no means regarded that the category of immediate struggles and vital demands of the masses excluded political struggles. It is clear that the struggle against reaction, the struggle against national oppression, the struggle against foreign military adventures and other political struggles also are part of the immediate needs of the masses. For example, the German proletariat rose up against the attempt of the militarists and monarchists to stage a coup d’etat in March 1920, the so-called Kapp putsch that we have referred to earlier in this article. The Congress theses talk of “...acute political and economic crises causing, as they do, new movements and struggles...’’ (from Point 34 of the ”Resolution on Party-Building’’)

The Third Congress thus opposed any attempt to create some sort of theory of stages – that first one takes up the economic struggle and then the political struggle. It stressed that right from the start the communist parties must undertake political action, stating that:

“For a Communist Party there can be no period in which its party organization cannot exercise political activity. For the purpose of utilizing every political and economic situation, as well as all the changes in these situations, organizational strategy and tactics must be developed. No matter how weak the party may be, it can nevertheless take advantage of exciting political events or of extensive strikes affecting the entire economic system, by a radical propaganda.” (from Point 31 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

Sometimes it is put forward that the class struggle should be split into two spheres: the political sphere which is the sole concern of the party and the economic sphere which is the sole concern of the trade union. This is actually a typical social-democratic theory. It shows that separating the economic and political struggle also involves upsetting the proper relations between the trade unions and the communist party.

The Third Congress denounced all such theories. It methodically demolished the theory of trade union neutrality, which is one of the most widespread theories of separating the economic struggle from the political struggle. It held that:

“But in reality the trade unions have never been and could never be neutral. Not only is neutrality harmful to the trade unions, it cannot positively be maintained. In the struggle between capital and labor no mass organization of workers can remain neutral.... But just as it is imperative for the bourgeoisie that the masses should believe in the after life it is imperative for them that the trade unions should maintain neutrality with regard to politics and with regard to the workmen’s Communist Party.” (from Sec. 1, The Fallacy of “Neutrality,” of the resolution entitled “The CI and the Red International of Trade Unions”)

Thus the Congress stressed that:

“Economics and politics are closely connected.

... There is not a single important question of political life which does not concern not only the labor party, but also the trade unions, and vice versa. If the French imperialistic government orders the mobilization of a certain class [i.e., of a certain age group of conscripts –ed.] for the occupation of the Ruhr basin and for the strangulation of Germany in general, can it be said that this purely political question does not concern the French trade unions? ... Or to use another illustration, – if there is in England a purely economic struggle such as the present lockout of the miners, can the Communist party declare that this does not concern it, that it is a purely trade union question?” (Ibid.)

The Congress pointed to the need for the closest coordination between the communist party and the trade unions, which it regarded as one aspect of the close connection between politics and economics. It held that:

“The theory and practice of fostering a split of the workers in the class struggle into two independent parts is extremely detrimental to the present revolutionary period. This struggle requires the greatest concentration of forces, a concentration characterized by the greatest expression of revolutionary energy of the working class, i.e., of all the Communists and revolutionary elements. Dual actions by the Communist Party on the one hand and the red revolutionary trade unions on the other hand are doomed in advance to failure and miscarriage. Unity of action and organic coordination of the Communist Party with the trade unions are therefore preliminary conditions to success in the struggle against capitalism.” (Ibid., “The Program of Action,” Point 18, emphasis added)

This, however, did not mean that the party should mechanically control the trade unions. The party should instead guide the trade unions through the proper Marxist-Leninist methods. The Congress stated:

“The party must learn how to influence the Unions without attempting to keep them in leading strings. Only the Communist fraction of the union is subject to the control of the party, not the labor union as a whole. If the Communist fractions persevere, if their activity is devoted and intelligent, the party will reach a position where its advice will be accepted gladly and readily by the unions.” (Ibid., Sec. 4)

The Regular Participation of Every Communist in the Work of the Party

The building of the communist parties as parties of action not only requires a correct attitude to the partial struggles, but it requires that the party be one in which all the members are active in the struggle. The Third Congress paid attention to the difficulties that the new communist parties were having in eliminating the old social-democratic form of organization, where the membership was inert and inactive and the leadership formed a ruling bureaucracy. It pointed out that “Regular participation on the part of most of the members in the daily work of the Party is lacking even today in the lawful Communist Parties. That is the chief fault of these parties, forming the basis of constant insecurity in their development.” (from Point 8 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

The Congress pointed out that: “A Communist Party must strive to have only really active members, and to demand from every rank and file party worker that he should place his whole strength and time, in so far as he can himself dispose of it, under existing conditions, at the disposal of his Party and devote his best forces to these services.” (Ibid., Point 10)

The Resolution goes on to describe the necessity to form small working units and the difficulties that the parties will face in introducing general obligatory work. It notes that the transformation to the new methods cannot be carried out all at once, but takes protracted efforts and mature consideration.

However, since these and other organizational questions take us outside the scope of this article, we regretfully leave this subject unexplored. We only stress that all the theses on winning the masses and leading the revolutionary struggles become mere empty words if the party is not built up on the Leninist basis. Those who denigrate party-building, those who regard the party organizations as a hindrance to their “real organizing,” those who scorn the hard work and sacrifice needed to build up a communist press, etc., have thereby become underminers and opponents of the methods of winning the masses as set forth by the Third Congress of the CI.


The United Front

The Third Congress was the first congress of the CI to put forward the slogan of building the united proletarian front. Of course, the basic ideas behind united front tactics had been a part of Marxism from the start. But the point was to elaborate and refine these ideas and recast them into the form needed by the new communist parties. The Third Congress began this process. It did not discuss the detailed features of united front tactics. What it did was to show that the principles of winning over the majority of the working class and of the utilization of partial demands required, when applied in the situation facing the CI, the use of united front tactics. It showed that these tactics were not reformism, but an indispensable tool in the fight against reformism.

Once the Third Congress had stated the problem of the united front to the world communist movement, the CI would then move rapidly to elaborate the issue. Within half a year of the Third Congress, in December 1921, the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) issued more detailed theses on the united front (the theses “On the United Workers’ Front and the Attitude to Workers Belonging to the Second, Two-and-a-Half, and Amsterdam Internationals, as Well as the Workers Who Support Anarcho-Syndicalist Organizations”). The Third Congress had established the ideological basis for this resolution and the subsequent rapid progress of the CI in the use of the united front tactics.

Do Not Write Off the Workers Under Opportunist Influence

The Third Congress faced the situation where the working class movement was, in general, split on a world scale. The politically active proletarians were organized into various competing parties and trade unions. It pointed out: “In view of the fact that in Western Europe and in America the workers are organized in trade unions and political parties...it is the duty of the Communist parties to endeavor, by means of their influence in the trade unions, by increased pressure on other parties connected with the working masses, to bring about the struggle for the achievement of the immediate needs of this proletariat.” (from Point 6 of the “Theses on Tactics,” emphasis as in the original)

Thus the Third Congress stressed that the workers in the opportunist parties and opportunist-led trade unions should not be simply written off. The communists had to find some way to get their ear. They had to find ways to overcome the savage obstruction of the reformist and centrist leaders, who cursed communism and did everything they could to prevent the rank-and-file worker from joining the struggle against the bourgeoisie.

The Third Congress noted that the struggle for the immediate interests of the proletariat served the communists as powerful artillery to break down the prejudices spread by the opportunist leaders. In outlining the tasks of developing political and economic agitation, it pointed to the need to try to draw in the workers under opportunist influence. For example, in describing how the communist parties should utilize new movements and struggles arising out of acute political and economic crises, it pointed out that one method was to “...appeal directly-to the members of the Socialist [i.e., reformist and centrist – ed.] Parties and the Trade Unions, pointing out how distress and oppression have driven them into the unavoidable fights with their employers in spite of the attempts of their bureaucratic leaders to evade a decisive struggle. The organs of the Party, particularly the daily newspapers, must emphasize, day by day, that the Communists are ready to take the lead in the impending and actual struggles of the distressed workers, that their fighting organization is ready to lend a helping hand wherever possible to all the oppressed in the given acute situation. It must be pointed out daily that without these struggles there is no possibility of creating tolerable living conditions for the workers in spite of the efforts of the old organizations to avoid and to obstruct these struggles.” (from Point 34 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

Thus the communist parties work to have the entire proletariat take up the struggle. But even if the opportunist parties and the trade union bureaucrats succeed for the time being, in preventing the united action of the workers, this does not mean that the communist parties should abandon the struggle. The independent role of the communist party is essential at all times, and it leads to the awakening of the masses. For example, the Congress pointed out:

“Should the pressure of the Communist Party in the Trade Unions and the press not be strong enough to rouse the proletariat to a united front, it will become the duty of the Communist Party to endeavor to lead [by itself – ed.] the masses into the struggle. The latter policy will be successful, and will lead to the awakening of the backward masses, when it will become clear to them that our aims are their aims, although they are not yet able to put up a fight for them.” (from Point 6 of the “Theses on Tactics”)

The Open Letter From the German Communists

A practical example of carrying out united front tactics had been given by the United Communist Party of Germany some six months before the Third Congress. On January 8, 1921, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the newspaper of the Central Committee of the United CP of Germany, published an “Open Letter” calling for united action.

The evaluation of this letter was one of the important political issues facing the Third Congress. Lenin held that:

The ’Open Letter’ is a model political step. This is stated in our theses and we must certainly stand by it. It is a model because it is the first act of a practical method of winning over the majority of the working class.” (“Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the CI”)

But there were those at the Third Congress who denounced the letter as an act of opportunism. This controversy raged inside the German Communist Party itself, as a result of which, although the “Open Letter” had been issued, the Party still did not “understand how to consistently continue the road it had started upon when it published the ’Open Letter,’ the road of opposing the practical interests of the Proletariat to the treacherous policy of the social-democratic parties and the trade union bureaucracy.” (from Point 3 of the “Theses on Tactics”)

What was this famous “Open Letter”? Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this letter, so we have to rely on descriptions of it from various sources. But the general content of the “Open Letter” seems clear.

The “Open Letter” was addressed to the Socialist Party of Germany (the reformists), the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (the centrists), the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (the semi-anarchists or “left” communists) and all trade unions. It called on all these organizations to cooperate in fighting the immediate attacks on the workers’ livelihood by the capitalists and fighting the capitalist reaction. 1 It should be noted that the issue at stake at the Third Congress of the CI was not the particular list of demands given in the letter and how it formulated them, but the general idea of writing such a letter.

The opportunist leaders rejected the proposals of the “Open Letter.” They preferred to cooperate with the bourgeoisie against the working class. From their rejection of the “Open Letter” to their sabotage of the struggle against the establishment of the Hitler regime, the German reformists would repeatedly reject the communist proposals of united action for the immediate political and economic interests of the working masses.

Had the proposals in the “Open Letter” been accepted, then; in the course of the jointly-endorsed struggle, the German communists would have had more access to the workers under the influence of the opportunist organizations. The opportunist leaders would certainly not have turned into angels, and they would have continued to sabotage the struggle and link up with the bourgeoisie. But the German communists would have used the opportunist sabotage of their own agreements and the lessons from the jointly-endorsed struggle itself to demonstrate to the workers the truths of communism and the rotten nature of opportunism and the outright betrayals by the opportunist leaders.

But the rejection of the “Open Letter” by the opportunist-led parties and trade unions did not mean that it had failed. The rejection of the “Open Letter” by the opportunist leaders helped demonstrate to the workers still under the influence of the opportunist organizations that it was the communists who stood for united action against the capitalists and the reaction, while it was the opportunist leaders who were standing in the way bf the class struggle. The fate of the “Open Letter” helped show these workers why the German communists had had to organize their own party, and why this party should be supported. These things were, of course, already known to the communist workers. But, the point is, the “Open Letter” helped bring out this truth in a way which the less conscious sections of the masses could understand.

The Third Congress of the CI endorsed the “Open Letter.” It held that:

“For example, the method of publishing a so- called ’Open Letter’ was used in order to win over to the VKPD [the United CP of Germany – ed.], as a young mass party, the socially decisive sections of the proletariat to a greater extent than had been possible in certain districts. In order to unmask the treacherous Socialist leaders, the Communist Party addressed itself to the other mass organizations of the proletariat at a moment of increasing desolation and intensification of class conflicts, for the purpose of demanding from them, before the eye of the proletariat, whether they, with their allegedly powerful organizations, were prepared to take up the struggle, in cooperation with the Communist Party, against the obvious destitution of the proletariat, and for the slightest demands, even for a pitiful piece of bread.” (from Point 33 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

The United Front From Above and the United Front From Below

The example of the “Open Letter” showed that, in order to influence the workers under the influence of the opportunist parties, it would sometimes, in the appropriate conditions, be necessary to issue appeals to the opportunist parties as a whole, that is, to their leaderships as well as the rank and file. The “Open Letter” was a public document issued right before the eyes of the entire working class. But, since it was addressed to the opportunist organizations as a whole, it was a proposal made to the leaders and leading bodies of these organizations. It was an example of an appeal “from above.” This, undoubtedly, was one of the reasons why the “Open Letter” became such a focal point of controversy.

Those comrades who objected to the “Open Letter” did not understand how it was possible to appeal for cooperation to the opportunist parties while not relenting in the struggle against opportunism. They believed that such appeals would simply create illusions in the minds of the workers about these parties.

As we have seen, the “Open Letter” in fact was a potent tool for destroying illusions in the reformists, centrists and other opportunists. But it is true that, if handled incorrectly, united front appeals can degenerate into liquidationist tactics of merging with opportunism. The CI resolutely fought against any liquidationist backsliding into accommodation with opportunism by setting forth the militant Marxist-Leninist principles that underlie correct use of united front tactics. For example, the CI insisted that a fundamental rule of general application to all communist parties was that the united front agreements must not impinge on communist independence and that the parties must retain the full right to criticism of opportunism. We shall discuss this aspect of united front tactics in more detail later on.

Another fundamental rule of the CI’s tactics that went against liquidationist tactics was its emphasis on the united front “from below.” For the CI, the appeals and agreements “from above” were but a complement to the basic method of united front work, which was unity “from below.” The Third Congress had no faith in the opportunist leaders at all. Its concern was to find ways to rouse the masses to rise in struggle, convinced that the experience of the struggle would lead the masses closer and closer to communism.

Thus the Third Congress opposed any interpretation of its tactics as meaning faith in persuasion of the top leaders. For example, in discussing trade union work, it stated:

“In the struggle against the social-democratic and other petty-bourgeois trade union leaders, as well as against the leaders of various labor parties one cannot hope to achieve much by persuasion. The struggle against them should be conducted in the most energetic fashion, and the best way to do that is by depriving them of their following, showing up to the workers the true character of these treacherous socialist leaders who are only playing into the hands of capitalism. The Communists should endeavor to unmask these so-called leaders, and subsequently attack them in the most energetic fashion.” (from Point 26 of the “Resolution on Party-Building”)

Indeed, the communists must even understand the of bourgeois governments. The united front means the association of all workers, whether communist, anarchist, social-democrat, independent or non-party or even Christian workers, against the bourgeoisie. With the leaders, if they want it so, without the leaders if they remain indifferently aside, and in defiance of the leaders and against the leaders if they sabotage the workers’ united front.

“And this genuine united front in the common struggle is bound to come....

“We appeal in particular to the non-party workers and to those who still support the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals. We say to you: You are not yet communists, many of you are even openly hostile to communism. The time will come when you will recognize the correctness of communist ideas. We will wait patiently until that time comes, which will mark the beginning of the true emancipation of the entire working class. But until then...we say: Despite all the differences in our political views, work together with us to organize the united front against the capitalists....

Build the united front locally too, without waiting for the permission of the leaders of the Second International.... In every factory, in every mine, in every district, in every town, the communist workers should arm together with the socialist and non- party workers for the common fight against the bourgeoisie....

“Once more: Demand the immediate convening of a world congress of the working class....

“We appeal to the press of the Second and Two- and-a-Half Internationals, and of the anarchists, syndicalists, non-party workers, etc., to publish this statement of ours in full, and we are ready to to publish in full corresponding statements by the said organizations in our press. The time has come when it must be openly stated who is for and who is against the united proletarian front.” (emphasis added)

In the meantime the reformists and centrists were busy sabotaging the decisions of the Berlin Conference. Within one and a half months, on May 21,1922, several major parties of the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals passed resolutions to call for a world congress without the communists. This showed that they were tearing up the united front agreements from the Berlin Conference. They wanted to gain every political advantage they could from the participation of the CI in the nine-member “Organization Committee” and use this as a cover while they stepped up their coalition with the bourgeoisie against communism. Hence the CI delegation to the “Organization Committee” withdrew on May 23,1922.

This marked the collapse of the Berlin decisions. This whole process was an instructive episode for the world

proletariat. It is also another illustration that the use of united front tactics requires, when appropriate, the use of agreements “from above.” And it shows that the CI used such agreements “from above” in order to encourage the basic process of “unity from below.”

No “United Socialist Front” in the Soviet Union

United front tactics can thus involve, when appropriate, agreements “from above,” even with the reformist and centrist internationals. But united front tactics do not mean that a socialist republic should bring into the government diehard enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the Russian reformists, the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR’s). Lenin commented on this as follows:

The purpose and sense of the tactics of the united front consist in drawing more and more masses of the workers into the struggle against capital, even if it means making repeated offers to the leaders of the II and II1/2 Internationals to wage this struggle together. When the majority of the workers have already established their class, i.e., their Soviet, and not ’general national’ (i.e., in common with the bourgeoisie) representation, and have overthrown the political domination of the bourgeoisie, then the tactics of the united front, of course, cannot require cooperation with parties such as that of the Mensheviks...and the S.R.s...for these have turned out to be opponents of Soviet power. Influence upon the working class masses under Soviet rule has to be extended not by seeking cooperation with the Mensheviks and S.R.s....” (“Proposal to the Draft Resolution on the Report of the RCP(B) Delegation in the CI,” Collected Works, Vol. 42, p. 411)

The Mensheviks and the SR’s had, ever since the October Revolution of 1917, involved themselves in one whiteguard plot after another against the Soviet power. They wavered constantly and always ended up on the side of the bourgeoisie against the new socialist state. There was hardly a revolt by a reactionary general or a restorationist plot by the big bourgeoisie that the Mensheviks and SR’s were not actively involved in. As Lenin pointed out at the Third Congress of the CI: “The whole of the bourgeoisie is now helping the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, who are now the vanguard of all reaction.” (“Report on the Tactics of the Russian Communist Party, July 5,1921”)

The Mensheviks and SR’s, while shooting down communists and serving as front men for the whiteguards, hypocritically put their hands in the air and demanded a “united socialist (or, alternatively, democratic) front.” They demanded that the Bolsheviks let them into the government and stop its “terror” against the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks and SR’s counterposed “pure democracy” against the suppression of the bourgeoisie, the whiteguards, and their allies by the Bolshevik-led dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus the content of the formation of a “united socialist front” would be the elimination of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Third Congress of the CI, in its “Theses on the Tactics of the Russian Communist Party,” supported the relentless struggle of the Bolsheviks against the Menshevik and SR counter-revolutionaries. It noted that the shrewdest leaders of the bourgeoisie, such as Milyukov, head of the counter-revolutionary Cadet party, the main party of the Russian big bourgeoisie, were openly welcoming a Menshevik and SR government, regarding it as simply a transition to bourgeois rule. The tactics of the big bourgeoisie were to agree for the time being to anything, even “Soviets without Bolsheviks,” so long as the Bolsheviks were overthrown. As the theses of the Third Congress put it:

“Milyukov, the leader of the big bourgeoisie, has correctly appraised the lesson taught by all revolutions, namely that the petty-bourgeois democrats are incapable of holding power, and always serve merely as a screen for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and a stepping stone to its undivided power.”

This, for example is what happened in Siberia where the “rule” of the Mensheviks and SR’s was simply the way that Kolchak, the whiteguard “Supreme Ruler of all Russia,” inaugurated his military dictatorship.

The Third Congress noted that the position of the Menshevik and SR supporters of “pure democracy” had been foretold by Engels, when he wrote:

Pure democracy... when the moment of revolution comes, acquires a temporary importance...as the final sheet-anchor of the whole bourgeois and even feudal economy.... Thus between March and September 1848 the whole feudal-bureaucratic mass strengthened the liberals in order to hold down the revolutionary masses.... In any case our sole adversary on the day of the crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole of the reaction which will group around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.” (Letter to Bebel of December 11, 1884, cited by Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, p. 461)

The Right to Criticize the Opportunists Must Be Preserved and Utilized

Another aspect of united front tactics that shines clearly through all the work of the Third Congress is that the communist parties must preserve the right to criticize opportunism. To be precise, they must not just preserve this right, they must utilize it constantly.

Thus the Third Congress was full of discussion of how to improve the criticism of the reformists and centrists. For example, earlier in this article we have already discussed how the Third Congress called for changing the character of this criticism to make it more hardhitting and to direct it at the concrete ways in which the reformists and centrists betray the working class every day.

The first CI theses on the united front, those of the Executive Committee of the CI in December 1921, also brought out sharply the need for the communist parties to maintain the right to criticize opportunism when using united front tactics. Point 18, entitled “Communist Independence,” states:

“The Executive Committee of the Communist International counts as a primary and fundamental condition, of general application to the Communist Parties of all countries, that every Communist Party which enters into any agreement with parties of the Second or Two-and-a-Half Internationals should retain absolute independence and complete autonomy for the expression of its views and for the criticism of its opponents. Imposing on themselves a discipline of action, it is obligatory that Communists should preserve for themselves, not only up to and after action, but if necessary even during action, the right and possibility of expressing their opinion on the policy of all working-class organizations, without exception. The rejection of this condition is not permissible under any circumstances. While supporting the watchword of the maximum unity of all working-class organizations, Communists, in every practical action taken against the capitalist front, must not on any account refrain from putting forward their views, which are only the logical expression of the defense of the interests of the working class as a whole.”

It would be hard to stress the importance of the right to criticize any more than by connecting it with the issue of communist independence. This meant that to jeopardize the right to criticize was to jeopardize the separation of the communists from the reformists and centrists. This separation is the historical accomplishment won by the advanced workers through sacrifice and hard work, and it is the precondition for further steps forward.

But, given that the communist parties maintain their freedom to criticize the opportunists, there is the issue of making sure that this criticism stays sharp and effective. The main method is to make sure that the criticism stays clearly directed to the ongoing class struggle.

However, it may also be necessary to pay attention to the tone of this criticism, and there are times when extravagant language hinders the penetration of this criticism among the masses. For example, in the period right after the holding of the Berlin Conference of the Three Internationals, it was important to criticize the reformist and centrist internationals to their rank-and-file followers. Since the point of making such united front agreements “from above,” such as those at the Berlin Conference, is to gain the ear of these rank-and-file workers under reformist and centrist influence, it is clear that one must immediately utilize the agreements by addressing these workers. To do this, Lenin pointed out, it would be necessary to avoid extravagant language at meetings which these workers attended and instead to speak straightforwardly and patiently. Thus, in discussing a proposal to the Presidium of the CI Executive Committee concerning how the CI and its sections should step up criticism of the opportunists following the Berlin Conference, he commented:

Criticism of the policy the II and Internationals should now be given a somewhat different character, namely, this criticism (especially at meetings attended by workers who support the II and II 1/2 Internationals and in special leaflets and articles written for them) should tend to be of a clarifying nature, made with particular patience and thoroughness, so as not to scare away these workers with harsh words, and bring home to them the irreconcilable contradictions between the slogans their representatives have adopted in Berlin (for example, the fight against capital, the eight-hour day, defense of Soviet Russia, aid to the famine-stricken) and the entire reformist policy.” (Collected Works, Vol. 42, p. 416, April 11, 1922)

Here Lenin points to the need to follow up the Berlin agreements by exposing to the workers the hypocrisy of the reformists and centrists, who declare that they are for all the good things, just as the communists are, but who in practice do the very opposite. The adjustment in the form and tone of this criticism was to help ensure that it spreads widely among the workers. Otherwise there was the danger that the vile maneuvers of the leaders of the reformist and centrist internationals, which we have discussed above in the section on the Conference of the Three Internationals, would succeed in fooling their followers.

Naturally liquidationist elements have regularly, at all times and places, interpreted the need to speak patiently to the rank-and-file workers under the influence of reformism and centrism as a justification for repudiating all criticism of reformism and centrism. They regard it as meaning that the criticism of opportunism must be toned down to nothing, if not immediately stopped altogether. This is just another expression of their idea that united front tactics means the repudiation of struggle against opportunism. It is another way in which they express their drive to liquidate communist independence.

The real art, however, consists in maintaining the same content of the criticism, that is, burning condemnation of the reformists and centrists, but expressing it in a form that will be understood and taken up by wider masses of workers. The form of the criticism may change somewhat, depending on the circumstances, but the struggle goes on. Indeed, it has happened more than once that the need to replace extravagant literature with explanatory criticism has required that more thought be given to the matter so that the result was sharper and more accurate criticism. But, in any case, the maintenance of the right to criticism and its effective utilization remains an important precondition for the success of united front tactics.

The two remaining sections of this article, Section IV: “The Reformist and Centrist Parties are Bulwarks of Capitalism” and Section V: “Vigilance Against Rightist Interpretations of United Front Tactics,” will be contained in the next issue of The Workers’ Advocate.

1 The “Open Letter” outlined a program that included demands on the following subjects: against unemployment; for higher pensions for war veterans; for laying the country’s financial burden on the monopolies; for the introduction of factory committee control over all stocks of food, raw materials and fuel; for control by the Peasants’ Councils and agricultural laborers’ organizations of sowing, harvesting and marketing of all farm produce; for the establishment of workers’ self-defense and the immediate disarming and disbanding of the reactionary paramilitary organizations; for amnesty of all political prisoners; for resumption of trade and diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia; etc.